December 2018

I confess. I used to disdain the phrase soft eyes.

Back in the days, when I taught rapport-building skills, the term popped up in one of my training manuals. Soft eyes just sounded kinda cheesy to me. You know, softly gazing at someone. Like a scene from a sappy Hollywood movie.

That’s not what soft eyes is, of course.

You know folks who have been drilled in how to give eye contact, right? The ones who don’t do it well? They stare at you intently. Often intensely. Their gaze is unwaveringly focused on you.  They really really look you in the eye. Their eyes seem to somehow never blink. And you simply want to recoil. Run. Run as fast from them as you can. Have them leave you the heck alone.

That’s bad eye contact. The opposite of soft eyes.

A little bit of context. The term soft eyes has been around for a long while. Hunters use this phrase to describe their skill in animal tracking. It is generally believed to have Native American origins. NLP (the study of neuro-linguistic programming) uses the term to describe a relaxed way of being present. In the HBO series “The Wire,” an entire episode was named Soft Eyes. In it, the character Bunk Moreland uses the phrase in conversation. He suggests that when we look with soft eyes we’re able to see more than what we see at first glance.

Nice. Let’s distinguish between 3 different ways of viewing what’s in front of us.

  • Peripheral vision:

    Most of us are not great at it. It’s an acquired muscle-memory skill. When we practice peripheral vision we approach our field of vision with the widest possible span and try to catch all that is on the edges of this span. I think of it as the old Cinemascope view of the world. We scope deep and wide.

    The risk:  We get constantly distracted by all we see and don’t notice what’s actually right in front of us. Not unlike a state of steady social media overwhelm. More, always more.

  • Foveal vision:

    Consider it the art of the laser focus. We are able to bring our attention to the tiniest detail that others will miss. My friends Pedro and Frank, both gemologists, immediately come to mind. Gemologists are trained to notice, and focus on, near imperceptible matter. The sort of stuff I tend to not see even after it is pointed out to me

    The risk:  We zero in on a seductive detail and miss significant details beyond our point of focus or significant changes in our surroundings. We have stereotypical tunnel vision

  • Soft eyes:

    It’s the effortless combination of both peripheral and foveal vision. When we focus on a person or an object, we do so without straining. Our eye muscles stay relaxed. Our gaze is not hard or intense. It is soft. At the same time, we stay aware of our peripheral vision and see all that is present in the broadest field of view.

    The risk:  I don’t, pardon the pun, see any risk. I see only assets.

The benefits of looking at the world in front of us are in some ways obvious – and tremendous:

  1. More relaxed:

    Because the inherent tenet of soft eyes is that we don’t strain, it tends to lull us into a more relaxed way of looking at others and the world around us. It puts us AND others at ease because we’re not “trying so hard.” Folks who meditate liken it to being in a state of walking meditation, much of the time. An easy, conscious, aware way of moving through the world.

  2. More open:

    When we doggedly focus on one person or object, we inadvertently close ourselves off to the many subtle non-verbal signals that may be “talking” to us while we over-focus. Soft eyes keep us aware of these signals and, in turn, make it easier for us to adapt our behavior accordingly. We show up more “in tune” with our environment.

  3. Less self-talk:

    I wish I had research data for this claim. The anecdotal evidence is powerful, and I trust that on a gut-level it makes sense. When I look at my surroundings with soft eyes I am powerfully in tune with the world in front of me WITHOUT trying too hard. This constant and effortless immersion with what I see pulls my focus outward, away from the sometimes incessant mind chatter we all know. The mind chatter dials down. Thanks to soft eyes, I am more present in the moment.

I have dreams and intentions for 2019. I am excited about them. And I know that everything will unfold with more grace and ease if I approach people and situations with soft eyes.

I claim 2019 as My Year of Soft Eyes.

I can’t think of any reason not to. Won’t you join me please?

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Call me a curmudgeon.

I’m not into all the traditional holiday stuff. Not anymore. The social expectations. The over-consumption of everything. No.

I want more. I want magic.

My work travel ended a couple of weeks ago. I’m into magic season now. Yes, I long to spend the rest of 2018 making magic every day.

Open Space Technology is a global movement based on the precepts of Harrison Owen. Open Spacers get together to have conversations. Deep conversations. Galvanizing conversations. Strategic conversations. Unplanned conversations. I spent some time with Suzanne Daigle and Jasmina Nikolic, two of my Open Space friends, in Belgrade this fall. Suzanne and Jasmina both speak with great fervor about their first Open Space experiences: Magic happened. 

Amen.

Conversations are my magic.

My 93-year-old Mom used to come visit me in Florida for the holidays.

Mom doesn’t believe in God – so we didn’t do traditional holiday stuff.

But we had rituals. We brunched at The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. We dined at the now-defunct Sugar Reef restaurant in Hollywood Beach. We took afternoon siestas. We went for daily strolls on the boardwalk. We listened to bands doing cover songs at the band shell. We hit every shopping mall within a 25-mile radius. Some of them more than once.

That’s the stuff we did every year. Not the rituals anyone imposed on us. OUR rituals. The stuff WE discovered. The repetition of the same is the magic sauce.

I just returned from a visit to Mom’s Senior Residence in Germany. The rituals have changed. They are simpler. They are rituals nevertheless.

Taking the elevator from the 4th floor to the 3rd floor. Mom resting on her walker as we ride down. Claiming our own little table in the bistro. Me walking to the counter, picking up 2 cappuccinos. 2 pieces of torte. Mom leaning in, telling me what she truly thinks of the occupants of the other tables.

The same. Every afternoon at 3. Every day.

Rituals are my magic.

I ran down to the beach right after 7 yesterday morning. The boardwalk was already bustling with the walkers, the bicyclists, the joggers, the idlers. The life guards were doing their pre-shift jogs. Tourists were starting to claim prime beach towel spots. The Atlantic was giddy and restless and just a little cold. When I went in my body shivered. Once I fully submerged I felt a calm and a supreme joy wash over me.

The joy of being, at this beach, in that very moment, on that very day.

I will do this every morning. The ocean will be the same every morning. And it will be completely different every morning. That’s its charm.

The ocean is my magic.
 
If you’re one of those folks who work through the holiday season, consider this.

I think of an interview I read a few years back. Amy Erret is the CEO and co-founder of Madison Reed, a firm that provides in-home hair color. As Amy explains in the interview (NY Times Business Section, 11/15/2013) about how she hires talent for her company, I’m starting to think Whoa, she would be a really cool woman to work for!

My personal tipping point in the interview? Ultimately my job, Erret says, with the people who work for me, is to find your genius and to help YOU find your genius. And if we can do that, that’s the magic.

Another amen.

While you show up for work during the holidays, celebrate your genius. And celebrate the genius in everyone you work with. Notice what happens.

Genius is our collective magic.

Yes, I plan to make some magic this season. Every day.

I did, by the way, buy my first-time-ever set of twinkling-light-snow-flakes. My Florida living-room windows will be making some magic, as well …

Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Revel in Magic.

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I’m in Germany, visiting my mom. Mom lives in a Senior Residence and I stay in a nearby hotel. The unexpected gift of this filial arrangement? Mom is a month shy of 94 and doesn’t have the energy for day-long socializing. I get time to myself.

Thinking time.

I think of an exchange a few years back. Jeff, the genial CEO of a Fortune 500 firm, is having a chat with a group of his high-potential leaders. A fellow asks Jeff for leadership guidance.

Make sure you have thinking time, Jeff suggests. It’s the advice I didn’t expect.

Keep track of things you want to think about moreJot them down. After a short pause, Jeff adds: Schedule your thinking time.

Spoken by a man who, I trust, never has enough time. Addressed to an audience who never has enough time, either.

Thinking time is common in ideation jobs. R & D. Even here, thinking often equals group-thinking-time. When individuals in the group haven’t had private thinking time, 9 out of 10 times group thinking generates more of the familiar. Thinking lite. Pretend-ideation. Same old story.

How, then, do we carve out individual, dive-down-deep thinking time? Here are a few thoughts on this matter:

  • Purposeful thinking, not accidental thinking
    You may have excellent brain-food habits. Listen to a podcast on your way to work. Read a book before you go to bed. Think about things while you jog. Great habits. I consider them accidental thinking behaviors. Purposeful thinking, however, happens when we stop all other activity and contemplate one simple question, one essential dilemma. This singular focus, which may incorporate resources like a podcast or a book, accelerates the deep dive. The fresh insight. The next-level-thought.

  • Ritualized thinking time
    Study the habits of highly successful people, and a few things become clear: Nearly all of them are morning people. Many of them have morning habits that set them up for success. Meditation and morning exercise are at the top of this list. In addition, most have 15 or 30 minutes in their schedule, first thing in the AM, when they have no appointments. Get-focused-on-the-day time. Think-ahead time. Ritualized private thinking time. Every day. This time is not negotiated away for the occasional international phone call. It is sacred time.

  • Monthly thinking retreat
    One way to generate substantial thinking time: Keep track of issues, concerns, ideas you wish to consider in-depth. Give yourself half a day, or better yet, full day each month to just think. Schedule this time. Leave the office for this period of time. Go to a thought-inducing environment. Ignore your phone and emails, if at all possible. See what happens.

  • Track time
    You are likely tracking time, as is. How much of it you spend in meetings, how much in phone calls, how much performing essential tasks. Great. Why not also track how much time you spend in purposeful thought? Tracking is especially helpful when we aspire to a certain standard. How much time in a given week, month do you wish to spend in thought instead of tactical execution? Decide, and track. Ways of carving out thinking time will be revealed.

Jeff, of course, is right. Thinking time is one way in which we energize ourselves. When we’re energized we energize others. When we are collectively energized, business is better. Always is. These days with mom remind me. Thinking time. How very sweet it is.

Please, make the time. Think. More.

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First time I had a 9-5 job, on the heels of a showbiz career that came with a more mercurial schedule, I was stumped. I wondered, how did people function between 3 and 5 in the afternoon? By mid-afternoon I was spent; I merely faked my way to the end of the day.

I have since built up stamina. But I am describing my natural daily pulse. It is likely different from your natural daily pulse. And yet, we are constantly asked to “perform” in ways that are not aligned with our pulse. Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, is an outspoken champion for the benefits of knowing and respecting our various pulses.

Some very simple pulse principles:

  • Your Daily Pulse

    There are times of the day when we are more physically energized, more mentally attuned, more emotionally primed. For many folks this occurs in the early part of the day. Not for everyone.

    Tip: If at all possible, schedule your most critical tasks during your peak-pulse-times. When I write, I tend to write in the mornings. My peak.

  • Your Weekly Pulse

    Debbie Moskowitz, a researcher at McGill University, found that any given work week tends to have its own pulse. According to Moskowitz, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the days when our capacity to focus is likely at its peak.

    Mondays are often warm-up days, best suited for less rigorous administrative tasks. By Thursday afternoon, our mental and physical energies may wane. Fridays, Moskowitz suggests, are best suited for open-ended work, relationship-building, long-term building. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

    Tip: Consider your weekly pulse as you plan your week.

  • Your Yearly Pulse

    Most of my clients work with great intensity, week after week. And then there are those weeks or months when intense becomes hyper-intense. Budget time. Sales convention time. Internal reporting time. These hyper-intense periods are cyclical AND predictable. They are part of the annual pulse of your work.

    Tony Schwartz created a Survival Guide for Sony UK to help its staff better manage their energy during these annual peak times. The guiding principle: The greater the demand, the greater the need for renewal.

    Tip: Facilitate renewal by reducing alcohol intake during evening meetings. Ritualize morning exercise. Eat more frequently and more lightly. Go to sleep at a designated hour.

Common-sense stuff. The results, according to Sony UK’s Commercial Director, were astounding. When we know our pulse and arrange our work in harmony with it, we become more impactful. Go ahead, incorporate words like renewal, recovery, and managing energy into your daily thought process. The moment you do, you are actively aligning with our pulse!

It actually is that simple.

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It’s an ironic part of the year. While we hustle and bustle from one social activity to the next, many of our social interactions will feel rushed. The volume, the pressure, the accelerated pace. What longs to be a time of connection can quickly devolve into a series of rushed non-connections.

Classic wisdom is that if we desire stronger relationships, we need to spend more time with folks. If you don’t have more time to spend, use language that accelerates connection. This works best in person. It will work equally well on the phone or in writing.

People with rich vocabularies, success guru Tony Robbins suggests in his book “Giant Steps,” have a multihued palette of colors with which to paint their life’s experience.

Agreed. And the colors in your palette don’t need to be high-falutin’. Here are my top 5 verbal cues that I know will strengthen any business relationship we’re in – and all others, as well. They may come in handy in this period of harried social contact:

1. “I was touched by …”

Most of us, even if we’re a little gruff on the outside, have a keen desire to impact folks. The deepest impact occurs when we touch someone’s heart. This simple phrase indicates to the other person that s/he has, indeed, via an action or a gesture, had that sort of impact on us. Powerful.

2. “You really helped me …”

It feels good to know that something we have done, no matter how small it may have seemed to us, has been of help to someone. It feels even better to hear this acknowledged. Whenever possible, let someone know that something they said or did, even if it was routine behavior for them, was helpful to you. “Help” is a crucial relationship word.

3. “I never looked at it this way before …”

Especially in a conversation that may have had its rough patches, acknowledge that the other person had a positive impact on you. Made you think of new possibilities, had you question hidden assumptions, forced you to reach beyond easy answers. This phrase celebrates the positive aspects of a potentially uncomfortable conversation.

4. “I don’t agree with …”

You may wonder, hey, how is disagreeing with someone a relationship-builder? Folks who have strong relationships with others are not afraid to disagree. They don’t waste time dancing around a moment of disagreement. They state their disagreement “in neutral.” No raised voice, no elevated emotion, no drama. Just a fact. The moment a disagreement is stated, the conversation can shift toward new ideas and fresh solutions. How liberating!

5. “I know we can come up with something better …”

Even as we discard a present state that we believe isn’t working, we look to the future with unwavering optimism in our ability to deliver. The word “we” is a potent non-blame word. The affirmation of my faith in the “we” is a sublime relationship-shaper. Couple it with the verb “can,” and it is sure to melt at least a modicum of doubt and resistance.

There are folks with whom it is tough to build relationships, I know. But even a tough nut tends to crack when approached with a relationship-enhancing cue.

The most common objection I hear to the just-listed cues: This is simply not how I talk. That, of course, is the point. Would you say this when you start to learn a foreign language? Of course not. Consider these cues part of your new and enhanced vocabulary. Toss the objections. Expand your palette. And accelerate connection.

 

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